Shakespeare: To Read or Not To Read?

As some of you know, I have been teaching a Creative Writing class at Metropolitan College of New York during the Spring 2012 Semester. Last week as we were sharing some in-class writing and talking general opinions the topic of Shakespeare came up. My students are in the same program I graduated from—American Urban Studies—and in their poetry and drama class they’ve been exclusively reading Shakespeare. Their comments about their class, and the idea of reading Shakespeare in general have had me thinking for the past few days.

Primary among their comments was that they’ve read all the works in the syllabus already—and in high school, at that. They said they’ve been reading Taming of The Shrew, Hamlet, and Macbeth. Sure enough, those are all titles I read in high school as well—in fact I first read Macbeth in 5th grade—so I can understand their disgruntled disposition about revisiting works; especially with such a vast library as Shakespeare. I took the same class they are taking, but with a different professor, and while I don’t remember all of the works we read I can tell you this: they were not all Shakespeare, and the Bard’s work that we did read was Othello. At that time I had read Othello (in high school) but I didn’t really appreciate it for its impact the first time. Revisiting it in college was actually enriching in this instance, as was reading To Kill A Mockingbird in both middle school and high school; occasionally it is valuable to revisit texts after a time. Viewing it from a more mature, or more knowledgeable perspective can open up avenues of interpretation that had not only been closed off in the past, but may not have been visible at all.

The other side of that coin, however, can be viewed with the three times between 7th and 11th grades I was subjected to reading Romeo and Juliet, on top of the numerous times I have been exposed to both the Franco Zeffirelli movie and the Leonardo DiCaprio one. While I can sit here and give you great conversation about the death of Mercutio or the inherent awesomeness of the word “apothecary”, I don’t know how much I truly gained from reading the same play all those times. In addition to being cast in West Side Story in 11th grade, I’m a little sick of the scenario—to this day. So I truly can empathize with my students’ distress.

I’ve often wondered, and even discussed with those who are willing to listen, about the actual worth of putting such a premium value on the works of Shakespeare. Certainly his body of work—without mentioning the quality and exemplary mastery Elizabethan language—is historically and literarily significant. His stories are timeless if-not-archetypical for many subsequent works of drama and fiction. His work in sonnets, iambic pentameter, and blank verse poetry are exemplary…but how relevant is it? Such a weight is put upon Shakespeare in Western Literature—did English Language usage truly meet its apex there? I find this doubtful. Perhaps a greater weight should be put upon more modern works, even the romantics would be considered modern in the spectrum of time…even the Constitution of the United States is more modern than Shakespeare.

For examples of poetry and prose shouldn’t we be looking towards a more recent Renaissance?  Perhaps the one that occurred in Harlem? Moving even more forward in time, when does hip-hop become considered poetry? Criticize it was you may, Shakespeare invented (see: made up) plenty of idioms and words in his work, so why is it so abominable when others do it? When rappers do it? Or science-fiction writers?

I don’t have the answers, nor do I mean to invalidate the worth of teaching Shakespeare, but I do question the absolute reverence, the notion that you are non-academic for daring to dislike or call doubt upon his contemporary relevance. Should our academic canon be revised? Shouldn’t it every so often? I think so…provided we don’t eschew the past entirely. Shakespeare has his place in the literary canon, but maybe it’s time to knock his down a few pegs in lieu of someone with a more contemporary collar.

What sayeth you?


2 thoughts on “Shakespeare: To Read or Not To Read?

  1. In my opinion, you are on the right track. I think Shakespeare should be taught with a rapper doing something similar and a classic modern poet, such as TS Eliot, who echoes his cadence and content. I also think it can go cross genre. There are also references to Shakespeare in Philip K. Dick, who twists a quote or two. Why not compare The Man in the High Tower with MacBeth?  (Am unsure if that works) Or find a short story.  It is obviously more work to approach the canon this way, but it could possibly be meaningful. 
    Another way to approach it is how derivative pop culture is. Steven Spielberg has said in interviews that he did take ET from Theodore Sturgeon’s “It.” In fact, though Spielberg is credited for the genre of Somethng awry in the perfect suburbs, when Sturgeon, originally an aspiring New Yorker writer, first came up with it in his science fiction stories. Or you can take Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. The concept of the divine idiot was used in movies and books like “Being There” and the Tom Hanks movie about the fool of chance. 
    I think classics can also be taught thematically. There are eternal themes that continue. Another is comparing My Mortal Enemy, Willa Cather’s classic–really about a woman dissatisfied in the end not with her marriage (that’s a scapegoat) but with life. She’s a “Larger than life” person who wants to live at a height of drama, to transcend the mundane.  That’s a theme you see in the burn out of rock stars at 26–Morrison, etc,
    And in every kind of literature.

    •  @susanweinstein Yeah, the themes of thing and not the concrete “read this, read that” mentality are what can make English Classes and literature programs seems really stodgy and stale. They need a good shake up.

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